Report Highlights Benefits of Targeting College Promise Programs Toward Adults

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Adults who enrolled higher education yet left with no degree may have already exhausted their eligibility for federal financial aid, stopping them from continuing their schooling. A new white paper from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) expands on a budding trend to combat this problem—College Promise programs geared specifically toward this population of learners.

“An adult promise program is more than just a financial commitment to provide free tuition and fees to adults,” the authors wrote. “The political viability of promise programs makes them an excellent vehicle for delivering additional supports and services to adult learners, who are currently underserved in higher education.”

The concept of College Promise programs for adults is relatively new; in fact, before 2017, every statewide promise program excluded adults, despite the fact that almost 40 percent of U.S. learners are over the age of 25, the authors wrote. They suggested that a combination of a misunderstanding of how many adults are enrolled in higher education, the ease of reaching out to high school students about the program over adult learners, and the cost of including more students in the initiative was responsible for causing adult learners to be left of out the “initial flurry of activity around free college and promise programs.”

However, over the past two years momentum around the concept of adult promise programs has been slowly growing, and a handful of states have begun to implement such programs. SHEEO is currently assisting five states—Indiana, Maine, Minneota, Oklahoma, and Washington—in establishing adult promise programs.

The group wrote in this report that while each state should develop a program to best fit its unique population of adult learners, there are critical aspects that each initiative should adopt, such as lifting requirements often associated with promise programs for more traditional programs, like full-time enrollment.

“An adult promise program should consider the unique challenges and financial constraints adult learners face. Adult learners lead busy lives, balancing myriad commitments. They are more likely to work and have obligations and expenses related to the care of children than traditional students. They also may have outstanding debt or financial holds related to prior postsecondary education attempts,” the authors wrote. “These factors create issues and barriers that will not be addressed through an adult promise program if it mimics those designed with traditional students in mind.”

The authors wrote that for an adult promise program to be successful it must include efforts to reach out to and recruit potential adult learners, and help keep them enrolled with support services such as emergency grant aid. The authors wrote that states should also consider how to bring in government programs when designing an adult promise program to help students cover gaps in costs, such as pointing them to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to cover meals.

The authors warned, however, that states should not make promises to adults that they can’t keep. They cited the Oregon Promise Program, which was unable to secure enough funding for  its promise of free tuition for all students regardless of their income after just a few years of the program running, and urged states to secure adequate funding before promoting its initiative.

“The term promise is a powerful tool because of the meaning it holds for potential students,” they wrote. “... When creating an adult promise program, states should ensure that they have the resources and support to maintain their commitments.”

Instead, the authors encouraged interested states and higher education stakeholders to look at the different ways that the five states SHEEO is helping to create adult promise programs are working with their lawmakers, institutions, and local community leaders to establish a framework to help adults succeed.

“If designed correctly, adult promise programs have the potential to increase adult student enrollment and retention,” they wrote. “... Given declining projections of high school graduates in most states, states must focus on adult learners to reach the level of attainment necessary for 21st century economic and workforce demands.”  


Publication Date: 10/22/2018

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